Strategy: a symphony, not a solo

By ClosetIdealist

@ClosetIdealist is a security and risk advisor in the private sector, having previously served in the Australian Public Service and in the ADF. 

Since my last post, there have been several developments in the debate about ‘civilian strategists’, including a 15 August contribution from Professor Hugh White.  Hugh, with his conservative definition of strategy as the bridge “between the organised violence … and the political purpose”, has dragged our debate back to first principles.  Before we debate the finer points of what a ‘civilian strategist’ might be, we need to agree on strategy.

At the risk of opening a can of worms with a ‘grand strategy’ label, surely the modern experience of conflict has evolved strategy into something beyond Hugh’s restrictive definition (which I would call military strategy). Most people now instinctively conceive of strategy as implying a more general means-ends relationship.  Clausewitz once wrote that in some cases:

the political object will not provide a suitable military objective.  In that event, another military objective must be adopted that will serve the political purpose and symbolise it in the peace negotiations.

But in modern conflict the use of organised violence may not achieve certain political ends.  The political object might not be the surrender or battlefield defeat of an opposing nation; contemporary goals are more ambitious and require something beyond organised violence.  Liddell Hart wrote that the role of grand strategy is “to coordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or a band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war”. For the purposes of our debate, this serves as a useful, contemporary definition of strategy.

To slightly twist Rodger’s orchestra analogy, as political goals have become more ambitious the “orchestra” of means available to any given nation has also grown, requiring the team of composers (strategists) to exercise an interdisciplinary approach.  Military musicians once dominated the orchestra’s membership, but now there is a different range of measures that can augment, enhance or replace organised violence.  Progress towards political objects might now involve the application of diplomatic pressure to other nations, the use of aid to equip rebel groups or build infrastructure, the manipulation of economic markets or the conduct of cyber-attacks to cripple an adversary’s systems.  To touch briefly on another aspect of the debate, when civilian musicians were accepted into the orchestra, perhaps ‘civilian strategists’ were required to bridge the gap between their means and the political object ends.

To extend the analogy slightly, when governments set their requirements and request that a musical piece be written, they expect their strategists to compose a strategy that considers all of the means available to a nation; no listener would be satisfied if they expected to hear an orchestral piece, but instead were subjected only to a drum solo of organised violence!  In the modern era, strategic goals are pursued with “whole-of-nation” strategies, requiring the orchestra to contain musicians with experience in diplomacy, aid, economics, cyber-security, intelligence and perhaps even private business.   As anyone who has played music in a band or orchestra will tell you, teamwork is key – all of the instruments must play their part in time, each instrument must be played well and in a way that complements or enhances the overall performance.

Putting these arguments aside, Rodger is unsure as to whether “Australia’s political, diplomatic or security circumstances demand, or allow us to produce these types of people” (i.e. strategists).  This is a very scary thought.  Australia will very likely face a myriad of strategic challenges over the next half-century: the rise of China, shifting regional dynamics and power, global financial instability, the list goes on.  To suggest that we cannot produce the people required to respond to these challenges is the equivalent of throwing in the towel at a national level.

Some of Australia’s strategic policy decisions in recent times have proved disappointing, while some have proven successful not due to skill, insight or forethought, but rather sheer dumb luck.  There are of course many challenges in generating a culture of strategic excellence, but surely these challenges do not excuse failure. For years we have been known as the lucky country and recent global events have surely reminded us of this fact, but will the adage of ‘better lucky than good’ continue to hold true for Australia?  If Rodger is correct – if we are unable to identify, train and position Australian strategists to confront these challenges – then we had better hope our luck holds out indefinitely.

Image courtesy of the United States Military Academy Band.

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This entry was posted in ADF, Australia, Strategy by Natalie Sambhi. Bookmark the permalink.

About Natalie Sambhi

Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, a think tank based at the University of Western Australia. She was formerly an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Managing Editor of The Strategist. She is a Hedley Bull Scholar and graduate of the Australian National University.

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